The 103rd Indianapolis 500 event is scheduled to take place on Sunday, May 26, 2019, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana. The legendary event has been the premier event for American open wheel racing for decades with roots deeply imbedded in dirt track racing. To honor this heritage, we plan on counting down the top 20 dirt track racers that have won the Indianapolis 500.
Today we profile Peter DePaolo at #14. Born in Roseland, New Jersey, DePaolo was the nephew of early racing legend Ralph DePalma (who is next on our countdown). After watching Uncle Ralph race on the local Brighton Beach course, DePaolo was hooked on becoming a professional race car driver.
Working his way through positions like tire company worker and rental car driver, he eventually found himself as a riding mechanic on his uncle’s race car. They finished fifth in the 1920 Indianapolis 500. After their partnership ended, Louis Chevrolet picked up the young driver to race at the Beverly Hills Board track.
In 1922, DePaolo qualified for the Indy 500-mile race but crashed and recorded a DNF after leading the race for a short time. Taking a short break from racing, he returned in 1924 where he finished in 6th place at Indy. He raced the rest of the year on board and dirt tracks in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, and California. DePaolo finished the season with a 12th place in the National Championship.
In 1925, he started racing early in California at the Culver City track, finishing second to Tommy Milton. He continued on, winning in Fresno to take his first AAA National victory. The team soldiered on to Indy where DePaolo put the big Duesenberg into victory lane at the Great American Race.
He went on to win several more races at Altoona, Laurel, and Salem to cap off his 1925 AAA National Driving Championship. DePaolo raced several more years, competing in four more Indy 500 races, but never achieved that level of success again at Indy. He was able to win another AAA National Championship in 1927, despite not being a fan of the dirt tracks. His skill on board tracks made up for any dislike of dirt track courses.
DePaolo retired and un-retired at the end of the 1920s, only to retire from racing permanently after crashing in Spain and laying in a coma for 11 days in 1934. He managed several Indy teams during the years, including Kelly Petillo’s 1935 winning team. He went back to IMS in 1971 to sing Back Home Again In Indiana prior to the race.
DePaolo died in 1980 at 82 years old. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1995.